After playing more than an hour of “Forza Horizon 5,” it’s clear that it continues the series’s tradition of being a game-long celebration of players coming together to commemorate the art and thrill of the race. The game amazes with stunning visuals — literally dropping cars out of the sky as the game’s Horizon Festival begins anew.
“Most games are about some level of deep crisis. Horizon is different, more or less, than any other game in that we really, really strive to just be relentlessly positive,” said creative director Mike Brown. “They will tell you that your story must have some sort of antagonist character or some sort of oppressive thing you need to overcome, and I think that’s true for a lot of linear media. But I think we’ve demonstrated you can tell a pretty compelling story about a big, smiley, wholesome party.”
As in the previous entry, this game asks for your name, and you can choose from hundreds of prerecorded names or nicknames that the voiced characters call you by. Playground Games was nice enough to at least include a “Eugene” (no sight of Gene), so I’m just going to assume my mother signed me up for these races.
The game’s campaign mode, now called Horizon Adventure, has also been tweaked to allow more player choice. Brown promises that all players will be taking unique routes through the world based on their story choices, their preference for activity types and even where they would prefer to spend time.
“I think it will create some interesting water-cooler moments where, right within the first hour of the game, you’ll be asked where to go, and it’ll send you to one of the corners of the map, which would really define how the next two hours of your campaign would play out,” Brown said. “And then because of that decision, it will affect the next decision you make.”
The game itself looks incredible — as expected. Draw-in distances for far-off details stretch past what the eye can discern, and the blazing speed at which my Corvette tore through deserts and valleys made the image feel realistic, while never letting me forget the heightened, adrenaline-fueled fantasy of hurtling a nigh-indestructible vehicle through the sky and, occasionally, into the ground.
“Forza Horizon 5” will arrive in November, one year after the launch of the Xbox Series X|S, and it will be the first Xbox exclusive outside of “Microsoft Flight Simulator” to finally showcase the next-gen machines’ capabilities. And although racing games seem like a tried-and-true genre, the Horizon spinoff series of the Forza franchise has innovated the open-world formula within the racing genre. “Forza Horizon 5” is a stunning visual showcase, and for anyone unfamiliar with the Horizon series, it’ll feel like a game-changing revelation to see the vast expanse of Mexico stretch before your eyes.
The Forza series, meanwhile, has carved its own path between these two design philosophies, offering hyper-realistic speeds and physics while having an automaker’s eye for detail and engineering.
“Cars are this fantastic coming together of design engineering to produce a thing that in its nature is desirable, exciting, engaging,” Brown said. “It’s similar to where we make games in a way that bring together art, design and engineering. It’s all about making a thing that’s desirable that allows people to fulfill their fantasies.”
The priorities in Forza are twofold: fine-tuning how it feels to drive (the cars feel incredible in this entry) and highlighting the world’s graphical detail. That emphasis — a hallmark of the genre — often gives developers license to explore the possibilities of a new console early in its life cycle. Racing games can be an implicit promise of what games on that machine can look like, offering a preview of the potential to be tapped by more complicated, taxing genres.
“That makes us push to be at the cutting edge in the same way the auto industry does,” Brown said. “I think that’s how you end up in a situation where those developers who are naturally car enthusiasts and have an attachment to the car industry find themselves just always trying to push the forefront of technology design.”
Brown says every time he works with auto manufacturers, he thinks about how he could’ve been a car designer instead.
“They think about the driver in the way that we think about the player,” Brown said.
The setting of Mexico also gave Playground an opportunity to play with its changing seasons mechanic from “Forza Horizon 4.” That game was based in London, so the four seasons would rotate throughout the year, bringing along map changes. In the fifth game’s Mexico, Playground has touted the rapidly changing and diverse weather patterns as a new way to reintroduce seasons. Rivers might dry up, and a sudden dust storm can introduce random havoc to a race.
“You can be in a snowstorm on top of a volcano, and drive down to the beach where it’s a blazing hot, sunny day,” Brown said. “You’ll feel the difference in the way you perform when you’re in a new, uncomfortable canvas.”
While Brown is reluctant to discuss any other locations the team considered as potential settings, I did mention that the Hawaiian islands have similar, diverse climates, which prompted Brown to admit that Hawaii was also considered for similar reasons.
Ultimately, the game feels like a true, updated sequel to “Forza Horizon 4,” which is viewed as a contender in the debate over the best racing title of all time. The fifth game only seeks to cement its status as a titan.
“ ‘Oh I remember this, I love this game,’ that’s kind of how you want people to arrive,” Brown said. “So that they’re full of wonder for the new stuff, but also they’re not feeling alienated because what they love has changed so much. I’m really happy with how this turned out, and we’ll find out in a few weeks how players go about it.”